People across an angry and divided nation were given a magical, unifying moment on Sunday. We needed it.
The singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, 59, returned to the Grammy Awards 35 years after she won the Grammy for Best New Artist. Her working-class ballad “Fast Car” was nominated for both Record and Song of the Year. At the Grammys in 1989, Chapman performed her song solo, playing her acoustic guitar. This year, she was joined onstage by the country singer Luke Combs, 33, for a mesmerizing rendition of “Fast Car.” It was a phenomenal musical moment.
But there’s a backstory that makes it even more meaningful.
Chapman, a four-time Grammy-award winner who released eight albums from 1988 to 2008, is a renowned, even revered figure in the music world. She burst onto the scene when she performed “Fast Car” in London’s Wembley Stadium for Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday. Chapman has captivated audiences ever since, despite having stepped back from the spotlight after her last tour, in 2009.
Her voice is soulful and mellifluous; her songs are masterpieces of narrative, emotionally resonant and authentic, with timeless appeal. So timeless, in fact, that Combs, who was born the year after Chapman won her first Grammy, chose to cover “Fast Car” in 2023, introducing a new generation to Chapman’s music.
Combs stayed true to the song; the lyrics were unaltered. It was a hit, reaching No. 1 on the Billboard Country Airplay chart and No. 2 on the Hot 100 chart. “You want to just be mega-respectful of the original song,” Combs told Today’s Country Radio. “It’s weird because you’re doing a cover of it and you say, ‘I don’t want to make it my own, because I really just want to shine a light on the original version and bring that.’”
Combs’s father played “Fast Car” for him when he was a child. “Tracy Chapman wrote this perfect song that I first heard with my dad, and it has stayed with me since,” Combs said last year. He called Chapman “a supernatural songwriter.”
At the 2023 Country Music Awards, “Fast Car” was named Song of the Year, making Chapman the first Black songwriter to win that award—three and a half decades after the song was first nominated for that category at the Grammys. During his CMA award speech for Single of the Year, Combs called “Fast Car” “one of the best songs of all time.” “I never expected to find myself on the country charts,” Chapman told Billboard, “but I’m honored to be there.”
Which brings us to Sunday’s duet, which began with a tight shot of Chapman’s fingers, plucking the familiar opening to the song on her acoustic guitar. The camera then pulled back to show Chapman’s face as the cheering audience shook the arena.
“What you noticed,” the New York Times music critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote, “was the joy radiating from her face. Her contented smile. The unwavering tone and rich steadiness of her voice.” Combs stood onstage with Chapman, representing a different generation, a different genre—but with visibly reverent awe. He later called it a “full-circle” moment.
For five minutes they traded off singing verses, coming together to harmonize on the chorus, with Combs at times mouthing the words as Chapman sang them. It was more her moment than his, and Combs knew that. When they were done, Combs gestured to her, bowing several times to convey his respect. She bowed in response, her hand patting her heart.
The response was instantaneous and overwhelming, and not just in the arena. The song went viral; people took to social media to say they were crying, but not knowing quite why. I couldn’t stop watching the performance yesterday, and I found myself on the verge of tears at times. And for at least one moment, red and blue America reacted the same way to the same event—to a song at once despairing and beautiful and empathetic, about poverty and caring for wounded family members, about a life of failed relationships and shattered dreams, about the desire to escape and the desire for dignity.
Music has the power to move us, to refine and ennoble our sensibilities, to take us places—sometimes transcendent places—that other things simply can’t. Rhythm and harmony find their way to the innermost soul, Plato wrote, imparting grace. But music requires musicians, and on Sunday night, America was witness to two very special ones. They were repairers of the breach, and we briefly shared not just a continent, but a country.